What is child lore?

What is child lore?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about child lore with help from scholars Gary Alan Fine and others, author Philip Pullman, and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin. I'm also exploring the use of child lore in storycraft and providing you with an exercise on the topic.

How Folklorists Understand Child Lore

Child lore is a broad category, so let's begin with a table of folklore types commonly studied by scholars who work with this material:

Early Childhood Lore School-Age Lore Games
Bogey Warnings and Moralistic Stories Calls, Cheers, Chants, and Yells Ball-Bouncing, Hopscotch, and Rope-Skipping
Nursery Chants Defiance and Retorts Choosing and Counting-Out
Nursery Games Humorous Narratives, Modern Topical Verses, and Songs Jacks, Marbles, and Mumble Peg
Nursery Jingles Jeers, Taunts, and Reproofs Marching Chants
Nursery Lullabies Mockery of School, Teachers, Subjects, etc. Clapping Games
Nursery Rhymes Parodies, Mock Speeches, and Backwards and Nonsense Verses Singing Games
Parental Evasion and Put-Off Answers Rhymes to Upset, Shock, and Tease Technological Games1

Regular readers of this newsletter might already note that child lore is not a genre by itself but contains folklore from many genres. For example, chants, jingles, and rhymes are examples of language and verbal lore. Bogey warnings might take the form of legends, but they might also be drawn from myths and other kinds of narrative. Even ball-bouncing, rope-skipping, jacks, marbles, and other such games employ material culture.

One of the more interesting nuggets of scholarship I found on child lore suggests it might also be an occasional repository for other types of folklore as they fall out of common usage among adults. Jonathan Roper, whose work some of you might remember from the recent newsletter on charms, writes:

It is notable that charms can survive in a sceptical world in the form of childlore, where, of course, they are not thought of as being proper charms at all. “Raine raine goe away, Come again a Saterday” (Northall 1892: 33) is in its way a magical formula: the rain is invoked by true-naming (rather than as often happens by being referred to by its pejorative attributes), then comes the expulsory element (“Go away”), and there is an attempt to emoliate this harsh command by an element of bargaining – persuading the rain that if it does go now, then a later return is fully permissible.2

In terms of transmission, child lore may be passed from adults to children as moralistic stories and lullabies often are, or it may be passed among children themselves, as retorts and taunts often are.3 However, children tend to repudiate their folklore as they grow up, believing it childish or immature, which makes them unique among folk groups.4 Finally, while the structure of child lore tends to remain fairly consistent over time, the content of that lore changes with the imaginations of children, the circumstances of their lives, and other factors.5

Now that we've looked at a few of the ways folklorists understand child lore, let's look at one way it has been utilized in fiction.

How Child Lore Has Been Used in Fiction Writing

This edition's example of folklore in fiction comes from Philip Pullman's excellent novel The Golden Compass, first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Here we learn of the Gobblers, a mysterious and dangerous group of villains who steal children. In the first half of the example, these Gobblers are introduced:

Children from the slums were easy enough to entice away, but eventually people noticed, and the police were stirred into reluctant action. For a while there were no more bewitchings. But a rumor had been born, and little by little it changed and grew and spread, and when after a while a few children disappeared in Norwich, and then Sheffeld, and then Manchester, the people in those places who’d heard of the disappearances elsewhere added the new vanishings to the story and gave it new strength.

And so the legend grew of a mysterious group of enchanters who spirited children away. Some said their leader was a beautiful lady, others said a tall man with red eyes, while a third story told of a youth who laughed and sang to his victims so that they followed him like sheep.

As for where they took these lost children, no two stories agreed. Some said it was to Hell, under the ground, to Fairyland. Others said to a farm where the children were kept and fattened for the table. Others said that the children were kept and sold as slaves to rich Tartars.... And so on.

But one thing on which everyone agreed was the name of these invisible kidnappers. They had to have a name, or not be referred to at all, and talking about them—especially if you were safe and snug at home, or in Jordan College—was delicious. And the name that seemed to settle on them, without anyone’s knowing why, was the Gobblers.

“Don’t stay out late, or the Gobblers’ll get you!”

“My cousin in Northampton, she knows a woman whose little boy was took by the Gobblers....”

“The Gobblers’ve been in Stratford. They say they’re coming south!”6

I like this passage quite a bit because it illustrates a few of the many ways other genres contribute to child lore. A rumour is born, which develops into what is essentially a contemporary legend for the purposes of the series. We can even see the classic friend-of-a-friend attribution common to legend in “My cousin in Northampton, she knows a woman whose little boy was took by the Gobblers....”

Now that we know who the Gobblers are, let's look at the way children navigate the danger they represent in the passage that directly follows the one above. Here, the novel's primary character Lyra suggests a new game to her friend Roger:

And, inevitably:

“Let’s play kids and Gobblers!”

So said Lyra to Roger, one rainy afternoon when they were alone in the dusty attics. He was her devoted slave by this time; he would have followed her to the ends of the earth.

“How d’you play that?”

“You hide and I find you and slice you open, right, like the Gobblers do.”

“You don’t know what they do. They might not do that at all.”

“You’re afraid of ’em,” she said. “I can tell.”

“I en’t. I don’t believe in ’em anyway.”7

It isn't clear to me whether or not the “Don’t stay out late, or the Gobblers’ll get you!” line in the first half of the example is a bogey warning transmitted from parents to children, though I would argue that because staying out late is a transgressive act for a child, it could be. (We'd have to ask Philip Pullman to know for certain!) However, the second half of the example is certainly a game in which a dangerous situation is communicated by means of play between children, and it serves a similar function to the bogey warning in that respect. Taken together, these two examples are a complex bit of storytelling from a folkloristic perspective, and they illustrate more than one way child lore might be used to enrich fiction writing.

How Child Lore Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

As it happens, author Terri Windling published an insightful blog entry on writing fiction for children the day before this newsletter was scheduled for release. Windling quotes author Lloyd Alexander's assertion that "In an age that seems to be increasingly dehumanized, when people can be transformed into non-persons, and where a great deal of our adult art seems to diminish our lives rather than add to them, children's literature insists on the values of humanity and humaneness." She also quotes author Katherine Rundell's assertion that "Those who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps, also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and necessary heartbreaks that life involves: to remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return."8

My friends, if there was ever a time to imbue our fiction with humanity and humaneness, it is now. If there was ever a time to remind ourselves that there are great, sustaining truths to which we can return, it is now. So the very best advice I can give you as a folklorist and writer about the ways we might use the folklore of childhood in our fiction is to write truest, most humane stories we can tell with it in the hope those stories will go out into the world and do good.

An Exercise in Writing with Child Lore

I like Philip Pullman's use of child lore so much I've decided to turn it into this month's exercise. Look at the chart above and find a type of child lore a parent might pass to a child. Write a short example of that lore in which the transmission from parent to child is obvious. Then look at the chart again and find a type of child lore children might pass among themselves. Take your first written example and transform it into a second written example in which the transmission between children is obvious. To conclude, write a scene or story that contains them both.

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of folk performance. Meanwhile, here's a thing of beauty I found in research for this newsletter edition; "The Gartan Mother's Lullaby," performed by The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin:9

 

 


  • 1. Halpert, Herbert, and Violetta M. Halpert. 1971. ‘Department of Folklore Genre Classification for Individual Student Collections’. Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive.
  • 2. Roper, Jonathan. “Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms.” Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 24 (2003): 25.
  • 3. Jeana Jorgensen, “#FolkloreThursday: Children’s Folklore,” Foxy Folklorist, July 6, 2017, accessed December 31, 2019, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/foxyfolklorist/folklorethursday-childrens-folklore.
  • 4. Fine, Gary Alan. “Children and Their Culture: Exploring Newell’s Paradox.” Western Folklore 39, no. 3 (1980): 178.
  • 5. Ellsworth, Brant. “Review of Yo’ Mama, Mary Mack, and Boudreaux and Thibodeaux: Louisiana Children’s Folklore and Play by Jeanne Pitre Soileau.” Journal of American Folklore 133, no. 528 (Spring 2020): 238.
  • 6. Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials Omnibus: The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass. Kindle. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012: 51-52.
  • 7. Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials Omnibus: The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass. Kindle. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012: 52.
  • 8. Windling, Terri. “On Writing for Children...and Ourselves.” Myth & Moor. Accessed September 30, 2020. https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2020/09/childrens-books.html.
  • 9. The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby - The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin, 2017. Accessed October 1, 2020. https://youtu.be/YgpVJAUIjYA.